All-Night Lotus Party is an intriguing companion piece to the Volcano Suns’ debut album. Once the groundwork had been set by The Bright Orange Years, pop seemed like an impossibility even as the Volcano Suns flirted with it so closely. It can only be expected that the next album would be more inconsistent. But it’s also the album where the band would put out its greatest songs. Mainstream appeal or not, it’s hard to find a song written by any Mission of Burma or Volcano Suns alum so instantly attention-grabbing and permanently endearing as “White Elephant,” which is the kind of song that hooks you in immediately but only gets harsher as it simultaneously gets more appealing on repeated listens.
All-Night Lotus Party has some big time duds, but it’s looser, more confident, and contains the band’s early peaks. Mixed in with banal, clichéd tracks like “Cans” and “Dot on the Map,” there’s rhythmically twisted pop like “I Walk Around,” the thinly-veiled rage of “Sounds Like Bucks,” and the glorious monstrosity “Blown Stack,” which alternates between hardcore thrash, psychobilly freakiness and gorgeous Undertones-esque power-pop punk — all over a span of 100 seconds.
Not surprisingly, All-Night Lotus Party contains the band’s most fascinating failures, such as “Room With a View,” a track that nobly tries to find a streak of pop melody where no one had looked before. (R.E.M. would eventually succeed where Volcano Suns had failed with “Losing My Religion.”) Other than “White Elephant,” however, the main highlight is "Village Idiot," which has a vocal melody straight out of Danzig, but is a little softer and a lot more creatively structured.
Despite the Wire comparisons Mission of Burma received, Volcano Suns probably had more in common with the Jam when it comes to the Ango-American punk/post-punk chain of influence. You can see the connection especially on tracks like “Journey to the Center of the Mind” and “Magic Sky,” as well as connections to some of the meaner punk melodists like Stiff Little Fingers and the Stranglers.
On all these tracks, the one constant is Prescott’s absolutely piercing drumwork. Much fiercer than anything he had done previously, he would reach that level of intensity again only 20 years later, when the reunited MoB put out what in my mind is their best album to date: The Obliterati. It would be remiss, of course, not to mention the contributions of guitarist Jon Williams and bassist Jeff Weigand. Volcano Suns may be the least guitar-driven band even to even approach melody, as Williams uses his guitar playing mostly as a deadly weapon disguised as a one-trick pony. Weigand is at his best when he takes lead, because someone has to. On all the best Volcano Suns songs, Williams grabs your attention with little more than one note, Weigand gets you grooving and Prescott takes it from there.
All-Night Lotus Party also contains the majority of the bonus tracks from the Volcano Suns reissues, and if the pop hints of the album proper weren’t enough, the opening bonus track is a Beatles cover. That “Polythene Pam” sounds so natural in Volcano Suns’ hands is probably more of astonishing accomplishment on the Beatles’ end, but the Suns, led as always by Prescott’s everywhere-at-once drumming, make the best of the their 90 seconds of Beatlemania — and follow it up with the nastier “Greasy Spine” just to keep themselves honest.
In addition to — or perhaps in spite of — all the pop flourishes found in the bonus material, there’s also some of the trippiest, weirder stuff that ranges from perplexing to flat-out annoying. The twisted alternative take on “I Walk Around,” called “Walk Around Dub,” may just ruin the initial version of the song for you forever. On the other hand, “Jazz Odyssey” sounds like one of the dreamy instrumentals from Zen Arcade, which was a rare treat to see Hüsker Dü accomplish, let alone some other band equally well. Just to let you know that this is bonus material and not the real thing, there’s a courageously nerdy cover of the "Ballad of Bilbo Baggings, which sort of ties together the bonus tracks with the Beatles and Leonard Nimoy, and a tacked on eight-minute hidden track of waste. It wouldn’t be Volcano Suns if there weren’t more than a few share of goofs.
In Prescott’s former band, Conley and Miller handled the more serious stuff, and it wasn’t until the surprisingly amazing 21st century reunion albums that Mission of Burma morphed from an Important Rock Band to a Great Rock Band. It now seems criminal that it took so long for people to finally get their hands on two seminal Volcano Suns releases, a band that did as much good as Mission of Burma in their day and had a longer, more enduring body of work and fanbase before Our Band Could Be Your Life was published. This is no side-project. This is the party-happy yang to Mission of Burma’s brainier ying. Depending on your mood, that’s often much, much better.